To continue reading this article and others for free, please sign up for our newsletter.
Sahan Journal publishes deep, reported news for and with immigrants and communities of color—the kind of stories you won’t find anywhere else.
Unlock our in-depth reporting by signing up for our free newsletter.
A dozen employees at Worldwide Flight Services have been fired or suspended after protesting working conditions last December, according to five workers at the Eagan warehouse.
The five employees assert that Worldwide Flight Services retaliated against them for speaking out about working conditions and a wider culture at the company that targeted Muslim workers.
Worldwide Flight Services handles Amazon’s air freight, with roughly 35 to 50 employees filling shifts at the warehouse and the airport, according to the employees who spoke to Sahan Journal. The vast majority of workers are Somali immigrants and Muslims, they say, while most of the supervisors are white.
Following last year’s protest, Worldwide Flight Services said it had opened an investigation into the situation. But several employees now tell Sahan Journal that working conditions since then have only become worse.
Some workers have filed informal complaints with human resources. A group of them are currently shopping around for lawyers to see if there are grounds for a lawsuit.
“After the protest, everything got worse,” said Mustafa Karama, a warehouse agent who said he was fired last month for insubordination and verbal abuse against a supervisor.
Mustafa says the company fired him for speaking up on behalf of a coworker. He alleges that a Worldwide Flight Services supervisor told a pregnant Somali woman to clean the warehouse’s parking lot, a strenuous job. The woman had a doctor’s note explaining that she should not perform physically intensive work, Karama said.
The suspended and fired employees who spoke with Sahan Journal expressed one main goal: for Worldwide Flight Services to take their concerns seriously and treat all employees equally. For this story, they shared notes they’d made about incidents of alleged discrimination, copies of internal complaints they wrote to their employer, as well as audio recordings of heated exchanges with supervisors.
In a prepared statement to Sahan Journal sent late last week, Worldwide Flight Services denied the employees’ accounts without responding to the employees’ specific allegations. A spokesperson said the company “has a strong culture built on accommodation and mutual respect for our diverse and inclusive global teams.”
“On occasion, some disgruntled employees decide to take job actions outside of our established processes for resolving conflicts or issues,” the Worldwide Flight Services spokesperson added. “In these cases, employees are warned, and provided an opportunity to find a constructive path forward. Unfortunately, in exceedingly rare cases, some employees continue activities counter to our policies and in those specific cases, we have made the difficult decision to terminate the relationship.”
Worldwide Flight Services did not immediately make any of the Eagan warehouse supervisors or management available for comment.
The situation has drawn the support of Awood Center, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that supports East African workers in warehouse jobs like Worldwide Flight Services and Amazon.
Abdirahman Muse, executive director of Awood Center, called for the company to roll back the workers’ suspensions.
“Firing and suspending workers who stand up for safety or speak up against unfair treatment isn’t going to fix the problems workers are raising,” Abdirahman said. “Instead of punishing workers, [Worldwide Flight Services] should listen to them and work to make sure all their employees are safe.”
A walkout in December leads to discrimination claims
A handful of employees have staged several walkouts since last December. An alleged comment by a supervisor prompted the first of these protests.
In that December incident, according to multiple people who spoke to Sahan Journal, and which Sahan Journal previously reported, a group of Somali women went on break to perform one of their five daily prayers.
“This is fucking bullshit,” the supervisor allegedly said, according to five employees who spoke to Sahan Journal. “I’m sick of this shit.” (The workers who spoke to Sahan Journal said they’d heard the account secondhand and then documented the incident.)
Mustafa said employees have previously taken prayer breaks, without incident, in the flow of the day’s work. Usually two people will go at a time, while others continue working.
Roughly 15 workers walked off the job immediately after that incident. One day later, close to two dozen employees held a protest outside the warehouse, carrying signs that read, “Stop discriminating against us,” “Stop the hostile language at work,” and “Respect our faith.”
A group of the protesting workers also hand-delivered a letter to management, signed by 20 employees, calling for an end to discrimination at the workplace.
“We have been experiencing racial and religious discrimination and a hostile workplace, including the incident yesterday,” the letter read.
Karama and another warehouse worker, Barjas Rwaili, led the protest with the help of Awood Center. “When we had that protest, we expected that this was going to improve our work situation,” Rwaili said. “That did not happen.”
‘Warehouse workers are not also janitors’
Until last fall, the Worldwide Flight Services warehouse in Eagan belonged to a Fort Worth, Texas-based company called Pinnacle Logistics. Worldwide Flight Services, a French cargo handler that employs 22,000 people in 22 different countries, purchased Pinnacle Logistics last September.
Batuun Farah, 33, and Kafiya Hassan, 38, are two of the warehouse workers who walked out in December and attended the next day’s protest. Normally, the two prepare packages from the airport and send them to Amazon for delivery. But after December, the pair explains, a group of managers added new tasks: cleaning the bathroom and parking lot.
Batuun, Kafiya, and a group of other employees refused to perform these cleaning tasks.
“Warehouse workers are not also janitors,” Batuun said.
Management then told them to sign a form stating that they refused to follow workplace orders. But only certain workers were required to sign these papers. Both Batuum and Kafiya say management didn’t demand signatures from workers who hadn’t protested in December—though these employees, too, had refused the cleaning assignment.
“The group that protested got punished,” Batuun said.
State and federal laws prohibit employers from discrimination against workers, said Leanne Fuith, an assistant professor at Hamline Mitchell School of Law who previously represented employees in labor disputes. Employers cannot discriminate against workers who are in protected classes: The right to practice religion and pray at work would fit this definition, Fuith explained.
Employers also cannot legally retaliate against employees who report alleged misconduct in good faith, even if what they report ends up being inaccurate.
However, Fuith stated, employers are allowed to fire at-will employees for any other reason. This included employees who refuse to perform a task they are being asked to do that every other worker is being asked to perform.
“But if they are being asked to do that because of their protected class, then it looks pretextual,” Fuith said—that is, a manufactured reason to fire the employees.
A group of workers, including Batuun and Kafiya, asked their shift supervisors if they could speak to upper management about the situation. Both say a supervisor told them they’d get to express their concerns, but that opportunity never came.
A walkout leads to suspensions—or possibly firings
The next workplace incident saw the conflict escalate.
During a routine meeting near the end of the shift on May 10, Sayidali Mohamed, a warehouse agent, ran afoul of supervisors, leading nine employees to leave their shifts early.
Sayidali, 31, says that when he arrived at the meeting, one of the managers called him out. “She yelled at me, saying why am I late?” Sayidali recalled. “Yet a lot of people were still behind me, coming to the meeting.”
Sayidali, who was one of the employees who joined the December protest, said the supervisor’s comments made him feel “targeted and uncomfortable.” Sayidali left the meeting and the supervisor called him to the office.
“She told me that she was going to write me up and send me home,” he said. “I said, ‘OK,’ because that’s all I could do.”
Sayidali then clocked out, with less than a half-hour left in his shift. Eight other employees, including Batuun and Kafiya, saw what happened and, in protest, left early with Sayidali. They expressed frustration that management still wasn’t taking their concerns about workplace culture seriously, according to several of the employees who spoke with Sahan Journal.
The next day, eight of the nine employees returned to clock in. But managers sent them home on suspension, without offering much explanation.
“We went back thinking we could solve these issues, but the managers there said, ‘You guys are held out of service. You are going to stay home until we call you back,’” Sayidali said.
Sayidali, Batuun, and Kafiya were among those sent home that day, May 11. They say they haven’t been paid since then. The only communication the workers have received from Worldwide Flight Services, they say, is a form letter stating they are under investigation. The workers say Worldwide Flight Services hasn’t informed them about any firing. But all three assume they’ve been dismissed and have started looking for new jobs.
Ben Kwan, another employment law attorney in Minneapolis, said that employees who walk out of a job collectively are largely protected under federal law, as long as they do so “as a concerted activity seeking mutual aid”—that is, together protesting an activity or supporting a colleague.
Kwan pointed to a decision by the National Labor Relations Board earlier this year that sided with five employees of a medical office in Pennsylvania who walked off the job to protest treatment of a coworker. The employer fired the employees who walked out, but the labor board ordered their reinstatement.
(Neither Fuith nor Kwan is representing any workers involved in this case.)
“Any employer who is on the fence about what to do when employees walk off the job ought to think twice before disciplining those employees in any way, shape, or form,” Kwan said.
Additionally, under state law, employees who believe they’ve been fired can ask their employer for the cause within 15 business days of their dismissal, Fuith said. A company then has 10 business days to respond to this request.
Rwaili, 29, says he’s on an indefinite suspension. He wasn’t at work during the May 10 walkout. An injury from a forklift before that incident kept him sidelined on medical leave. Rwaili went back to Worldwide Flight Services on May 23, following his doctor’s suggested timeline.
But upon arriving at the facility, Rwaili says, management called him to the office and told him to turn in his employee badge. A supervisor told Rwaili that he would be getting a call from human resources soon, but would not tell him if he’d been fired.
Rwaili, who is now also looking for another job, assumes he’s been let go. But as of press time, he said he still hasn’t received a job-status explanation from Worldwide Flight Services.
Rwaili said he was never paid for his medical leave. On top of this, he claims Worldwide Flight Services owes him more than a full workweek of pay for hours he worked over the last year without compensation.
The Worldwide Flight Services spokesperson said the company “stands by our values, our policies and our procedures.”
At press time, the company’s website listed six open jobs for cargo-loading and package-handling in its Minnesota operations. Four of those jobs were posted last week.